Online Universities: Why They Still Don't Measure Up

Assume you're a front-pager, a specialist in need of a certification, or someone else who really needs a degree to make career progress. Have we reached the point where online universities like the University of Phoenix or Kaplan University are worth your investment and time?

If you answered "yes," there's a lot of data to back you up. Online universities like the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, AIU, and Ashford are fully accredited, and thanks to heavy marketing pushes, they're becoming household names. And to shore up their offerings, most of the higher-ranked online schools offer hybrid classroom/online coursework. Just as important to gaining legitimacy, the online model is increasingly embraced - albeit in limited form - for classes at more prestigious traditional schools, from the California State University system to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Getting Beyond The Sketchy History Of Online U

But there are still big problems with the digital classroom, and graduates of online universities garner little respect.

The industry's sketchy past is one factor. Once upon a time, distance learning was the domain of Sally Struthers and the ICS correspondence school, where you could "learn gun repair by mail!"

That's changed, of course. Products like Saba LMS. Moodle, and even iTunes U have brought e-learning into the mainstream, and most major universities now allow at least some portion of coursework to be completed online. In a world where Skype conference calls are the new business normal, is there any logical reason why the best of the new online universities can't rival their traditional counterparts?

Yes, but not for the reasons you might expect.

The most common, most quantifiable criticisms lobbed at online universities concern lackluster graduation rates, test scores and post-graduation employment statistics. But many employers are willing to hire from traditional schools whose stats are no better than the online outfits, so what's the problem with the Internet schools?

Why Online Grads Still Don't Get Respect

To get some real-world perspective, I spoke with a San Francisco-based recruiter for a large government agency and an executive recruiter for Washington, DC-area nonprofits - both of whom asked for their names not to be used. Their opinions weren't particularly promising for online schools and students.

According to the government recruiter, "For a decent job with upward mobility here, a University of Phoenix degree wouldn't get someone through the door unless they had something else really good on their resume. A recent USC grad with no experience could get an interview, but I'd be shocked to see a recent online grad get the same."

The nonprofit recruiter was a bit more forgiving, but she agreed. "In the not-for-profit world, employees' most important assets are their relationships, so I wouldn't discard a good candidate based on an online degree. Still," she admitted, "it's not ideal. It doesn't set a baseline expectation, for me or for the people he or she will meet in the field. If I just need to check off a 'degree' box on a requirements form, online will do, but if two candidates are similar, I'm going with the one from Stanford or UVA."

Brand And Social Interaction

When pressed for the reasons behind their opinions, both recruiters felt the differences between online and traditional schools boiled down to two things: brand and social interaction. Most traditional schools – from the local community college to the University of Chicago – have clearly understood reputations, strengths and weaknesses. An engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon or a veterinary science degree from UC Davis carry the weight of an established program with a history of results. Without historical data and a history of success or failure, the online schools' GPAs, class standing and other performance metrics seem like arbitrary numbers.

Ultimately, education is a promise, rather than a product.

Academia is not like the business world, in which an online startup can trounce an established business by building in the cloud and delivering commodity goods with less overhead. Reputation and consistency matter when building trust in hard-to-quantify-results. Ironically, innovation, lower costs, inclusion and reduced barriers to entry can actually hurt the prestige of online schools. One of the key functions of a selective college is to do some pre-sorting of applicants: "if you got into Yale you must be smart." Giant online schools that accept pretty much everyone may be democratizing education, but they're not helping employers or anyone else separate out the best and the brightest. 

Accreditation is a step, and elearning is a tool, but they aren't sufficient on their own. Over time, the best online schools have to build portfolios of successful clients and amass enough alumni performance data to distinguish themselves from diploma mills.

In short, online colleges have to build their reputations just like offline schools do. It's taken centuries for the top schools to cement their positions, it'll take decades at least for online schools to do the same. Until that happens, recruiters would rather play it safe and go with the well-known brands.

Are The Social Issues Solvable?

Recruiters also worry that online schools can't reproduce the critical social environment of traditional colleges. According to the government recruiter, hiring decisions are about more than weighted scores, and college provides a lot of soft-skills training that is just as important as test-driven learning.

"There's more to getting an education than completing a class. Social interactions, extracurricular activities, just being able to get yourself out of bed and into class every day – these are all learning experiences with a direct effect on someone's ability to become a productive employee and work on a team." Online education doesn't really address any of these factors - at least not right now.

When I mentioned that even Harvard was already offering blended learning degrees, the recruiter was quick to point out that those degrees were limited to Harvard's Extension School, and the University's most prestigious schools go out of their way to underscore the power of communal, face-to-face learning.

"I hate to sound like a snob, but call me back when Harvard Business School offers an online MBA."

 

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.